Tuomas: Watching water drop off a cliff – The Iguazu Falls
Puerto Iguazú, Argentina
I realized only after arriving in Rio de Janeiro that I had actually completed the purpose of this journey. That is, to go around the world. I visited South America for two weeks in 2008 and traveled through, among other places, Santiago de Chile, where we now landed shortly before continuing to Rio. Thus I have gone around the world, returning to the same point where I started over seven years ago!
That seemed to be something worth a mention before continuing to the actual topic. It is related to it in a way though… I first heard about the Iguazu Falls on that trip in 2008. We were visiting a Finnish couple who spend their winters in Uruguay and they showed us some pictures of their trip to the falls. It seemed like a spectacular place and the images came back to me when we started planning this trip. Hence, the falls were one of those things we could not miss on our great trip around the world!
We left Rio by plane, discouraged from traveling by bus because the trip would have taken something like twenty hours or so. Before arriving in Brazil we'd had to buy bus tickets from Sao Paolo to Ciudad del Este in Paraguay at the airport in Auckland because apparently you're not allowed to travel to Brazil without a set plan for departure. We managed the bus tickets quite hastily because they seemed to be the only way we could get tickets out of the country for less than 100€ per person. They still cost 161USD for the two of us and the ride would have taken fifteen hours. Also, it would have ended in the wrong country. Luckily we were able to cancel the tickets and make new arrangements, we only had to pay the service charge of about 15USD. We even got that back after we let our travel agent at Kilroy know about the hassle. They're cool like that at Kilroy.
Flying to Foz do Iguacu ended up costing us about 114€ per person but we thought it was worth it. It saved us a lot of time at least. We had two short flights with a company called Azul, the first on a jet plane with the most leg room I've ever seen, the second on a smaller propeller plane. Back in Rio we were able to walk to the Santos Dumont domestic airport, just 25 minutes away from our hotel in Gloria. When we arrived at Foz do Iguacu we took the 120 bus to the city, which was easy enough but complicated by some minor difficulties. First of all, some buses in Brazil have this weird spinning gate system just behind the driver. You give the required amount of money to the person handling the gate and he/she unlocks it for you to push through. Judging from what we saw this is quite a feat for overweight people and it wasn't too easy for people with luggage either. We could barely make it through with our backpacks on, I can't imagine how the other people made it in before us. We were the last ones in and as I was paying the tickets (R$2.90 each) the driver took off with unyielding determination to break the sound barrier. Try walking around in a full bus going Mach 2. Then try doing it with a twenty kilogram backpack on…
It took about half an hour to the bus station in the center of the town. We'd picked up a map of the area from a poorly marked information center at the airport and with that in hand we started heading north towards our reservation. Turned out that "central location" is a stretchy description. I'm not sure how long it took us to walk to the Nacional Palace Hotel with the backpacks on but later it took thirty minutes without them. The neighborhood around the hotel was somewhat seedy looking with abandoned buildings and crumbling things all around. The Nacional Palace wasn't much better, the hallways and the pool area in the back were in some desperate need of refurnishing. It was still somehow clean and OK to stay in though, our room smelled of disinfectant when we got there and the air-conditioning worked. The included breakfast was pretty decent with bread, cheese, ham, juice, coffee and four different cakes, but I had expected a little more, this being a two star hotel. Hostel would have been more like it, in my opinion. We paid R$191 for three nights so at least it wasn't too expensive.
We arrived to Foz do Iguacu on Saturday 30th of May, which back home was when high school graduations and such took place. Ever since we left home we had been feeling like we were better off than the people back there; the weather was generally nicer and we were experiencing new things every day. This seemed to be turning the other way around. They were going towards summer, graduating, having vocations or working to earn some money, doing all sorts of nice things. We were sitting in a crappy hotel with the air-conditioning actually turned to heating. We spent our first full day in Foz do Iguacu contemplating this and Skyping with our relatives. Luckily the internet connection was pretty good, we were able to get the last of our pictures uploaded in Google Drive during this first ever episode of travel exhaustion. I wouldn't call it homesickness, because that's not what it was. We just needed a day off from traveling. Talking with our parents took us closer to home for a little while, giving us a boost to head out to the world again.
The falls from the Brazilian side
We weren't really so miserable that we couldn't leave the hotel and go see the falls on our first day. It also happened to be a Sunday, meaning more people, and somewhat cloudy, meaning worse photographs. Monday turned out to be nicer and we walked to the bus station to hop on the 120 bus towards the falls. It was the same route that we took from the airport, costing R$2.90 per person, and taking us a couple of kilometers past the airport this time. We had read that the tickets for the national park would cost R$40 per person but they had gotten a little more expensive, putting us back R$52.30 per person. This included bus transportation in the park, priced at R$8 per person. I'm not sure if one could get the ticket without paying for transportation because there isn't a proper footpath for the whole way. One seems to be under construction though. It's a pretty long way anyway so we were glad of the ride we got in the double decker bus. We hopped off at the Cataratas Trail stop and headed to the footpath which took us to some viewpoints. The first vistas weren't all that remarkable but they kept getting better as we got closer to the falls. The weather was great but still there weren't that many people there, which was very nice. We saw a few of the strange looking coatis and a whole lot of butterflies on the paved path, which we did in hiking boots though any good footwear would have been fine.
The path took us eventually to a boardwalk type thing stretching closer to the bottom of the falls. Depending on the wind it was very possible to get wet down there and many people were wearing plastic ponchos to avoid that. We had our rain jackets with us and felt like that was enough. We got some pretty good pictures but somehow I felt just a little disappointed. The falls were grand and they seemed to go on forever but they were lacking the power I had hoped for. We were glad we did the walk however, we actually walked the whole thing back again to take it all in for a second time. There was a cafeteria and a bus terminal at the falls but we could get on the bus at the starting point as well. We spent about three hours inside the park, which was plenty of time to do the main walk twice over, we didn't feel like we'd needed any more time.
After getting back to town we returned to the hotel for a little while to wait for our next destination to open up. We had read in our guidebook about a pizza buffet at La Bella Pizza, but it didn't open its doors until 6 p.m. This gave us enough time to develop a decent hunger before paying R$19.99 per person for dinner. We had thought that they would have a table with several types of pizza for everyone to grab as they please, but instead they went around the restaurant with large plates, offering slices to seated customers. We had our fill with just the pizza even though they also had pasta, French fries and fried chicken. The stuff just kept on coming and we had a little too much, but that didn't stop us from attacking the ice-cream buffet in the corner. Amazingly it didn't stop there, but they came to offer us some sweet pizzas to go with the ice-cream. We couldn't just have the regular chocolate pizza, we had to try the white chocolate one as well… And the fruit salad one… And the banana one…
On to Argentina
We left Foz do Iguacu the next day, taking a bus over the Argentine border. We walked to the main street leading towards the center of town and waited for a bus with "Puerto Iguazu" written on it. Sadly we missed the first one and ended up waiting for about 45 minutes altogether… When we got in we paid R$4 each for the ride and sat our backpacks on the floor. We were super proud of ourselves after we'd been able to pack all of our things inside the main backpacks for the first time in months, usually we'd had the small ones as carry-on. Our guidebook said that the bus "may or may not" stop at the Brazilian border, but this isn't so. It will stop if you pull on the string alerting the driver and you need to stop to get stamped out of Brazil if you're not planning on coming back. We did this, which meant getting off the bus and waiting for the next one to pick us up (the first one continued straight on with all the rest of the passengers and left us with tickets to the next one). Luckily we had held on to the little arrival/departure cards we got upon arrival in Rio, because they took those from us at the border. It went smoothly, taking only about a minute or two to get the stamp. After we got on the second bus we drove to the Argentine border, where everyone had to disembark and go through security. Our passports got some new stamps and our backpacks some light radiation from the X-ray and we continued with the same bus to a new country. It wasn't long after that that we found ourselves at the main bus terminal of Puerto Iguazu, Argentina. The whole border crossing had cost us four reals per person and taken less than two hours, not counting the wait for the first bus. Not bad…
We hadn't made any reservations for our stay on the Argentine side of the falls but we had looked at some places on the computer. We scouted around a little in hopes of finding a better deal than on the internet but that proved futile. Most places were asking AR$300 per night in a double room, taxes included, but we weren't willing to pay that much. They had private rooms for AR$250 per night at El Guembe Hostel House but we still didn't think that was low enough. This is why we usually make reservations, it's pretty frustrating to walk around trying to find the best deal. In the end we exhausted ourselves and decided to stay at Residencial Uno which offered a nice looking room with AC and TV for AR$280 per night. Later we found out that they had pretty lousy reviews on Booking.com due to the dogs that call the place home. They were nice dogs, but I can see how they would make some people nervous. They weren't quite German shepherds but similar in size and coloring and there were five of them. The room was nice and there was a kitchen we could use, though the gas stove was so ineffective that it took about an hour to boil some pasta. Breakfast was included and consisted of toast, spreads, cereal, coffee, juice and fruits. We liked the place, even with the dogs, but it wasn't anything special.
The Argentine side of the falls
A lot of people ask us what kind of a budget we've planned for this trip. The truth is that we have no such thing, I just keep track of the money we spend. Planning ahead is impossible. Take our trip to the falls for instance: we read in our guidebook (published 9/2013) that there's a local bus called El Practico taking people to the falls for AR$9. It was supposed to leave from the Three Borders monument and drive down Av. Victoria Aguirre close to our hostel. We went to a bus stop to wait for it and even asked a local woman if there really was a bus like that (she confirmed it). After waiting forty minutes or so we started to feel a little skeptical about the whole thing and walked to the local tourist information center. There we learned that the bus no longer existed and the only sensible way for two people to get to the falls would be to take the Rio Uruguay bus for AR$50 per person one way. We ended up doing that and paid AR$200 altogether for the tickets there and back, instead of AR$36. The trip to the falls took about half an hour and once we got there we went straight to the ticket booth to pay the expected AR$130 per person. Only to learn that it had gotten up to AR$260. The value of the Argentine peso has dropped in the last few years, I get that, but finding the entrance fee to be double of what we expected was a little shocking. Not least because we only had about AR$700 with us and we still needed to pay for the ride back to town. Pay we did anyway, what else was there to do?
We were glad we did. I have to confess that my review of the Brazilian side was a little unenthusiastic and this is why: first of all I wrote it at about 11 p.m. in a crappy hostel in San Ignacio and also because it really wasn't that spectacular. The Argentine side was much better. We took the Green Trail to Cataratas Station and walked the Lower Circuit Trail from there. It took us about fifty minutes to go around and gave us some spectacular views of the falls splashing away side by side, spraying up mist to create multiple rainbows. The water level was too high for the free boat trip to San Martin Island but we could manage without the 700 meter walk there. Perhaps the increased water flow made the falls a little grander so we got something extra there instead? After the Lower Circuit trail we returned to the train station to check when the last train to Garganta Station would be (4:10 p.m.) and decided to hop on the one rolling to the station. It's a pretty long ride to the end of the tracks but definitely worth it as there we finally found out what all the fuzz is about. We walked up the pathway suspended above the flowing water of Rio Iguazu Superior all the way to Garganta del Diablo. "The Devil's Throat" sounds more than a little diabolical, but I can definitely see the point of it. We've named this blog Finnish Terra as a corruption of Finisterre in Spain, the westernmost point of mainland Europe and "the end of the world". We've visited other such places as well, but never have we witnessed anything even remotely resembling the straight drop from the edge of the world so feared by the seafarers of old. The Garganta del Diablo gave us just that. The massive river falls into an indefinite abyss, spraying up so much mist that all other views are covered by it. At times the wind would blow away some of it just to show that the Brazilian side was still there, but for the most part all we saw was the water falling down and nothingness beyond it. We truly felt like we were standing on the edge of the world, the scenery was surreal with the plummeting water roaring in our ears and clouding our vision with mist and rainbows. The sky was clear and the weather warm, the perfect setting for viewing the falls, but still there weren't that many people there. We walked around the platforms a few times taking it in, feeling very content about making the trip there.
And that's about as poetic as I feel like being just now. Here come the fast facts: the mist does more than just obscure the view and create rainbows, it also gets you wet. I had a thin wind jacket to keep my upper body somewhat dry but my shorts got pretty moist. Sini went without raingear and got wet all over, but dried off in the sun quite quickly. Two words of warning: first, protect your camera and dry the lens every now and then with a cloth to prevent the inevitable drops from ruining all of your shots. The second one is for girls: don't wear a white T-shirt. And if you do, wear a bra under it. Or don't, seeing a girl who had failed to prepare for the soak didn't really bother me but she didn't really seem to be enjoying herself quite as much as she apparently had hoped…
Some food for thought there…
After seeing the Devil's Throat gurgle we returned to the Cataratas Station via the train tracks that seemed to be overrun with the cutesy little coatis, and I mean dozens of them. They may look cuddly but they are prone to stealing food and some of them may carry rabies. We encountered a pack of them hopping down a stairway at one point on our tour and had to gently fight them away. Luckily, like most of the creatures smaller than a rhino, the coatis have a natural respect towards selfie sticks. We learnt in Nepal that rhinos need a sturdier bamboo stick to get the hint. We made it through the nosy fur balls unscathed and rabies free and continued our trip with the Upper Trail, which gave some nice views of the same falls as the Lower Circuit, but from above. It was a nice little walk but out of the three we did it might still have been the least spectacular.
We returned to town with the Rio Uruguay bus after almost five hours in the park. We decided not to hop off the bus near our hostel but to continue all the way to the Three Borders monument at the end of the line. It was a nice little detour, bringing us to the point where the Iguazu River and Parana River separate Argentina from Brazil and Paraguay. All three countries have erected monuments painted in the colors of their flags on the shores of the rivers and one can appreciate them from any of the countries. The obelisk-type monuments aren't really all that spectacular, especially as the Argentine one was actually walled up due to some construction, but it was a nice spot to watch the light of the day fade away. We walked back to our hostel from there deeply content with our decision to come all this way just to see some water fall off a cliff.
The "All in all…"
We enjoyed both sides of the falls, but the Argentine side was clearly better. It was more expensive also, but worth every peso. There we liked the Garganta del Diablo Trail the best, the Lower Circuit Trail the second and the Upper Trail the third best. If I was to advise people going to the falls I would recommend seeing both sides as we did, starting with the Brazilian side. Puerto Iguazu is a much nicer town than Foz do Iguacu so I would recommend doing a day trip from there to the Brazilian side, they organize tours but one can also do it with a combination of local buses. Three hours on the Brazilian side should be enough if you're not planning on paying extra for additional walks or boat rides. The Argentine side is bigger and better and took us closer to five hours. There I'd suggest doing the short Green Trail, followed by the Upper, then the Lower and finally ending at the Garganta del Diablo Trail. The two sides should be seen on different days to avoid rushing it and in clear weather to see some pretty amazing rainbows forming in the mist. It probably didn't hurt that we were there during week days. Wear sunscreen, sturdy sandals and a bra for heaven's sake!